I was recently asked in which culture I thought was the most difficult to negotiate a business deal. The most difficult I could think of would be to negotiate with the Roma (gypsies) of Europe. But that really doesn’t come up much in international business. The Russians would be a strong candidate for most difficult, but a sharp wit and enough vodka can often help bridge the gap. No, my vote would go to Middle Eastern cultures as the hardest to navigate in negotiations.
Before I explain why, I think it is important to point out that in my experience, Middle Easterners are normally warm and welcoming people. Business partnerships can often be measured in decades, with Middle Easterners showing a strong sense of commitment and loyalty to those who reciprocate. Middle Easterners I have known have a wonderful sense of humor and are dedicated to their family and friends.
Now here is why the Middle Eastern cultures get my vote. Long-term business relationships depend on each side benefiting from the relationship. But when Middle Easterners (& Russians) negotiate, culturally they want to win at the other side’s expense. There also can be a lot of drama (emotional displays) in the negotiation that negotiators from other cultures are not accustomed to seeing. But the final reason is that it is easy to offend a Middle Easterner and very difficult to regain the trust. This happened to me last fall. I was building rapport with a young professional Middle Eastern person. Over a period of three months, this person repeatedly offended a group of people. Instead of understanding or admitting her role in the group, this person blamed everyone but herself. In the process of complaining to me, I indirectly inferred joint responsibility for the situation. The result – an emotional volcano erupted and ties severed.
Does that mean that the rest of the world should not do business with Middle Easterners? Absolutely not. There are ways to compensate for any challenging aspects of Middle East negotiations. First, always come prepared with what you can give to the other side and what you can’t. Most importantly, inflate your price to allow for deeper discounts and a perceived win-lose that is actually a win-win. Second, instead of dreading an emotional display in the attempt for deeper concessions, enjoy the show! It’s for your benefit. Your role is to stay calm and focus on the long-term relationship. And finally, never directly or indirectly accuse your counterparts of any wrongdoing. Instead, focus on the negotiating issues at hand. Remember, well-negotiated business relationships with Middle Easterners can be some of the strongest and most enduring to be found anywhere.